To work on a scholarly project is to be obsessed; to be obsessed is to have one’s current project turn up everywhere. For some scholars, this ubiquity is a deceptively reassuring sign of the significance of one’s work, much as a lover locates numerological assurances in the digits of a crush’s phone number. For others, these “coincidences” of the “real” and the academic come to taste like cinders and bile: we would give so much to keep the past in the past.
Although it is not the subject of my dissertation (which is about the idea of the “common man”), the phrase “the forgotten man” plays a key role in the story I tell. So when the phrase appeared in Donald Trump’s victory speech last Wednesday, the scholarly machinery in the bottom of my mind slipped into motion even as I was still consciously processing the events of the day. Trump was using the term in a manner we are likely to recognize: “That is now what I want to do for our country. Tremendous potential. I’ve gotten to know our country so well. Tremendous potential. It is going to be a beautiful thing. Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
There is a long chain of precedents for this rhetoric, but its antecedents are also immediate, not historical: they are the people of “economic anxiety,” the “missing voters” whom the pundits assured us would not turn out but on whom Trump staked his electoral chances, the Great Lakes voters that the Clinton campaign is now being roasted for having spurned, the American Brexiters. But the history of the term is also important, for it is not quite clear whose use of the phrase Trump (or his speechwriter) might have had in mind.
The responsibility for the term lies with William Graham Sumner, the Yale sociologist/economist who generally represents that questionable category of “Social Darwinism” in our potted intellectual histories. If there ever was such a thing as Social Darwinism, its standard was carried by Sumner, a man who could say without flinching, “a drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be.” Sumner’s relentless opposition to any public programs for social amelioration (and most private efforts as well) has made him a perpetual darling of libertarianism: his pithy ruthlessness can deliver a frisson of cruelty while masquerading as common sense, not sadism.
Whether there was sadism in Sumner’s rhadamanthine declarations is something I am still trying to figure out. The will to punish—much more than the will to power—is a drive which intellectual and political historians have explored rather little; our Foucauldian dabblings have tended to be rather unimaginative in their explorations of the deeper structures of authoritarianism and social control—which is perhaps just as well, for what would it say about academia if we were talented at understanding sadists and autocrats?
Regardless of Sumner’s personality, his politics are not a good fit for Trump’s. An outspoken foe of protectionism and militarism, it is difficult to see Sumner on Trump’s side regarding NAFTA or TPP, or cheering his casual bellicosity. But even laying that aside, the meaning of Sumner’s “forgotten man” is not, I think, a match for the “men and women” Trump addressed.
For what marks Sumner’s “forgotten man”—actually, Sumner adds near the end of the essay by that name that “it is time to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman”—is independence, self-sufficiency, and a deep desire for privacy and stability. Sumner wrote,
He is always the man who, if let alone, would make a reasonable use of his liberty without abusing it. He would not constitute any social problem at all and would not need any regulation. He is the Forgotten Man again, and as soon as he is brought from his obscurity you see that he is just that one amongst us who is what we all ought to be… He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays—yes, above all, he pays. He does not want an office; his name never gets into the newspaper except when he gets married or dies. He keeps production going on. He contributes to the strength of parties. He is flattered before election. He is strongly patriotic. He is wanted, whenever, in his little circle, there is work to be done or counsel to be given. He may grumble some occasionally to his wife and family, but he does not frequent the grocery or talk politics at the tavern. Consequently, he is forgotten. He is a commonplace man. He gives no trouble. He excites no admiration.
Nowhere in Sumner’s essay is there a hint of agency among the forgotten men and women, nowhere a sense of impending revolt. The forgotten men are not the human material for a social movement, much less the shock troops of a coup. Nor are they looking for someone to help them. They vote, they are loyal, but they are also remarkably steady—in the Republican primaries, it is not hard to see them as Kasich voters. Trump’s “forgotten men and women,” on the other hand are looking for a patron, a protector, and a champion. For Sumner, the forgotten man is the citizen who has no lobbyist, no ward-heeler or boss to cut him in on the spoils of graft and (one of Veblen’s favorite words) chicane. He is the party of no part, left behind in what Sumner calls “the great scramble and the big divide.”
Moreover, Sumner’s forgotten man is not condescended to, not the object of scorn; forgotten doesn’t mean marginalized or alienated, a “stranger in his own land.” The forgotten man is just a part of the background. And as a part of the background, he is not so much deliberately targeted by chiselers or scam artists—he is not the direct victim of conspiracies or of predatory practices—as he is collaterally vulnerable to the generic injustices of a venal society. He is too solid a citizen to put up a fight, so he pays the tolls and taxes that come with living among people less scrupulous than he.
The April 7, 1932 radio address by Franklin Roosevelt which revived and transformed the phrase is, in fact, somewhat closer to the meaning Trump gives to the term, but that is perhaps not entirely surprising, for Ronald Reagan appropriated FDR’s language at least twice—a part of his lifelong entanglement with FDR’s legend. (More hostilely and more recently, Amity Shlaes used the phrase to title her attack on the New Deal.) The relevant paragraphs in FDR’s speech ran:
It is said that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo because he forgot his infantry — he staked too much upon the more spectacular but less substantial cavalry. The present administration in Washington provides a close parallel. It has either forgotten or it does not want to remember the infantry of our economic army.
These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power for plans like those of 1917 that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.
It is difficult to read this passage and not dwell on the two rhetorical choices FDR makes here. In invoking both Napoleon and the pyramids, is he summoning the shades of empires past? Of enormous collectives of raw human material yoked to an indomitable will? While we so often think of FDR’s “forgotten man” as part of that celebration of universal human dignity etched into the nation by the Farm Security Administration’s photographers and documentarians, this passage—especially read in the context of a global 1932—can give one a slight chill.
I have reached a surprising, even counterintuitive position here—not, I would wager, what you expected and not what I, frankly, expected. I’ll leave it there, then, and hope for the best.
 Veblen was Sumner’s best student.